Phone-in system proposed to reduce lines at homeless shelters 

click to enlarge Help for homeless: People line up at St. Vincent de Paul on Fifth Street. A proposal recently discussed before the Board of Supervisors would allow homeless people to call in instead of waiting in line for hours. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • Help for homeless: People line up at St. Vincent de Paul on Fifth Street. A proposal recently discussed before the Board of Supervisors would allow homeless people to call in instead of waiting in line for hours.

Homeless people in San Francisco, many of whom are elderly or disabled, currently have to wait in long lines for hours each day for shelter without the guarantee they will even receive a spot.

A new proposal would implement a lottery-based shelter-bed phone reservation system to more efficiently manage the available beds.

The current “Byzantine” shelter system forces the majority of the chronically homeless to wait outside one of The City’s four shelter reservation centers — sometimes for up to 17 hours — to find out if there is bed space, only to repeat the process the next day, according to Jennifer Friedenbach of the Coalition on Homelessness.

Those waiting in line can be subjected to arguments about who was first, and have to endure the cold and rain. And if there are no beds, the next reservation center may be miles away. The four centers turn away between 70 and 80 people on average each morning, and between 100 and 125 each night, according to The City.

“It’s an unnecessarily torturous process for folks who are destitute and often disabled,” Friedenbach said. Her group is working with Supervisor Jane Kim on shelter access issues.

“Our reservation system, frankly, doesn’t work,” Kim said, and with no new shelter space planned, “we have to improve the system that we have,” she said.

The new proposal, which Mayor Ed Lee recently discussed before the Board of Supervisors, is still being fleshed out, but may consist of a partnership with 311, The City’s free telephone information service. Those seeking shelter could be able to phone or text in and request a reservation, and if selected, would be notified and could simply show up at the shelter later.

“I think it’s got potential to be done this year,” said Bevan Dufty, the mayor’s director of homeless services. “We want to be careful not to create other problems, just to be thoughtful about it … so far, I feel very positive about it.”

Friedenbach, who has been critical of some of The City’s past approaches to homelessness, said the response from the Mayor’s Office on this issue was “wonderful.”

“Working together with our community partners, we can and we will make strides forward on improving our shelter system,” Lee said, adding that his “No. 1 priority remains permanent housing.”

aburack@sfexaminer.com

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